Those who pick up their news exclusively from such esteemed outlets as The Economist magazine, the Web site Politico, or ABC television could be forgiven these days for having a charitable view of the new American political force known as the Tea Party movement.
Earlier this month, Politico's Jonathan Martin, appearing as a commentator on ABC News, said the tea-partiers had "helped the [Republican] party." In a recent editorial, The Economist dubbed them "an alliance of ordinary people who are spooked by the huge amount of debt that is being racked up on [President Barack] Obama's watch."
We like both The Economist and Politico. But assertions such as these are tone-deaf, inside-the-Beltway punditry at its worst. They do the American people a profound disservice by failing to portray the Tea Party movement as what it is: A disturbing -- one might say downright spooky -- insurgency of the paranoid right-wing fringe. This isn't a snide liberal pronouncement. It's a verified sociological fact, as recent survey data from California make clear.
A Field Poll dated Jan. 26 represents the first systematic study of the ethnicity, political leanings, and beliefs of tea-partiers in the country's most diverse and populous state. The poll can be considered a fair snapshot of the movement on the eve of its arrival as a real force in American politics, and its results are plain.
Tea partiers are not, as they and their media patrons would have it, a diverse and independent-minded coalition of grassroots campaigners for governmental reform and deficit reduction. On the contrary: The movement is overwhelmingly white, conservative, and in love with laughable conspiracy theories. Consider:
These telling statistics don't paint a portrait of "ordinary Americans." What they demonstrate is a nefarious revival of the xenophobia and conspiracy-mongering that last enjoyed widespread popularity among the militia enthusiasts of the 1990s. As David Barstow of The New York Times pointed out in one of the few intelligent stories that have been written to date about the Tea Party phenomenon, tea-partiers' beliefs often seem more in line with the anti-Semitic Christian Patriot movement or rabid anti-immigration activism than with any recognizable form of mainstream Republicanism.
I'm not suggesting all tea partiers are nut-jobs or bigots. (Just most of them.) In fact, we recently published a story on San Francisco Tea Party Republican John Dennis, a politician in the classical Libertarian mode who doesn't hold with the movement's more extreme views. But as the recent state Field Poll makes clear, Dennis is in the minority among his tea-bagging brethren. The sooner journalists -- and their readers -- can recognize tea-partiers for who they are, the better.
Photo | RBerteig